Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Queer(ing?) Solidarity

Dr Will Visconti

In the last twelve months, two icons of cinema history have exploded back into the public consciousness, but not, perhaps, in a manner that was entirely expected. Both Mae West and Marlene Dietrich have reappeared on televisions – or screens of some sort – around the world, but as channelled by drag queens. This in itself is not entirely surprising, since Mae West (1893-1980) and Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) became staples of drag acts, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, alongside other stars of Old Hollywood including Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead. What is more unusual about the choice of Miss West, as Mae was known to those around her, or Marlene, as Dietrich referred to her public persona, is that they were chosen by younger performers on a show where other impersonations have regularly included reality TV personalities, models and pop singers.

The appearances of Alaska Thunderfuck and Sasha Velour as Mae and Marlene respectively were entirely unexpected discoveries to make in the course of my research – and indeed, it is nothing if not fortuitous that they have catapulted both women back into the public eye in time for me to present my paper. Their choices of adopting these personae while competing on the hit show RuPaul’s Drag Race raise interesting questions about the nature of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich as queer icons in the first instance. West and Dietrich were both heavily involved with queer communities such as they existed in New York and Berlin in the early decades of the twentieth century. However, each approached the incorporation of queer identities into their own in varying ways. Could their links to subcultures such as the drag bars of Greenwich Village or Schöneberg’s lesbian clubs in fact be a form of cultural appropriation rather than an act of solidarity? Is their incorporation of queer style and the legacy of openly gay and lesbian performers more attributable to opportunism and trading on the frisson of transgression for broader audiences, rather than an identification or alliance with unacknowledged queer muses?

There are arguments for and against such an interpretation of the respective “acts” and personae of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, and the closeness of the stars to their material or inspiration. Where the former had grown up around performers on the vaudeville circuit and was close friends with stars like Julian Eltinge (one of the premier female impersonators during the early twentieth century), the latter had even closer ties to queer performers in Berlin and beyond, taking male and female lovers including heiress Jo Carstairs, singer Edith Piaf, and possibly the pansexual avant-garde dancer Anita Berber. The fact that Dietrich could be identified as queer herself is noteworthy, though she refused to label her own sexuality. West had many gay male friends, but was rather less keen on lesbians. She did, however, get on well with Dietrich (with whom she spoke heavily Brooklyn-accented German; the legacy of her Bavarian-born mother Tillie), and with Greta Garbo.

What is most important to notice is that whatever queer elements there were in West and Dietrich’s public personae or material, queer sexuality was never the punchline. When there was humour, it was directed elsewhere, as with Dietrich’s duet with Margo Lion, Wenn die beste Freundin, which played on the ambiguity of the girls’ relationship. Similarly, in Mae West’s plays, when the drag queens Winnie and Kate or The Duchess trade barbs, the humour is not at the expense of their sexuality, but is comes from the characters’ sniping at each other’s weight, clothing and popularity.

A final question to pose in regard to the appropriateness or degree of solidarity that West and Dietrich showed with queer fans and queer communities is whether the end justifies the means. Harvey Fierstein famously spoke out in defence of the “sissy” as a comedy character in early film, reasoning that bad representation is better than none, and the same may be argued here. Certainly, not all of the ideas espoused by either Mae or Marlene would still be acceptable today, and some have been superseded by emerging research or evolving attitudes. West and Dietrich were, however, ahead of their time in their acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, and set a precedent for later celebrities and activists to follow.

Further reading:

George Chauncey. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Mel Gordon. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. Venice, CA: Feral House, 2000.

Emily Wortis Leider. Becoming Mae West. Thorndike: Thorndike Press, 1997.

Maria Riva. Marlene Dietrich. New York: Ballentine Books, 1994.

Will Visconti completed his PhD in French Studies and Italian Studies. His research examines sexuality, representation, transgression and performance, with particular emphasis on the fin-de-siècle and the interplay of past and present in contemporary cabaret and burlesque.


How Might Politicians Think During Mental Health Awareness Week 2017?

By John Chacksfield MSc, DipCOT, PGCE – PhD Researcher, Faculty of Health & Wellbeing

This article comes at a time when we have another excellent opportunity to focus on equality for the one in four people in our population who has experienced mental health difficulties, namely Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, but also at the time in the run up to the General Election. As an observer of human nature, I could not help asking myself what the electoral candidates must be feeling at this time, and how the pre-election atmosphere must be affecting their mental wellbeing. I thought about standing for election, until I had the thoughts that comprise this article!

If I was a politician who had been in post but suddenly faced with an announcement of a ‘snap’ general election, what must I be thinking? I suppose the answer might fall into three main categories:

  • Personal impact
  • Competitive edge
  • Image-related anxiety

Personal impact is clear. I would be feeling pretty stressed and thinking to myself, “Oh no not again!” After all the hard work of being elected the last time, I have to do the whole thing again, meet dozens of people, and deal with the anxiety of not being re-elected or perhaps assuming I am going to be elected but not wishing to be too complacent. If I had some mental health awareness, then I would be trying to mitigate my stress with a series of relaxation techniques, exercise, massage and other coping strategies. If I did not have any awareness of mental health, I might possibly have increased my alcohol or nicotine intake and be leaning on family and friends for support – whether they liked it or not. Am I stressed already? Am I, in mental health terms, now one of the one in four?

Competitive edge is what the electoral process is all about. Finding out about the latest manifesto announcement from another party and trying to think how I can reframe this to my best advantage, trying to keep on my toes and face the world, armed with the best thinking processes possible. I might worry about meeting key people and groups of constituents, making sure I know what to say to them. Thinking about my best ‘elevator pitch-type’ speech that might enthuse them to vote for me. The endless trudging around streets, talking to householders, some of whom I know will be planning to vote for the other party. Will forget the human being that is standing in front of them and discriminate against me because of my political association? Meeting and talking to people who want an argument, or people who I secretly know I might not like, yet I still have to maintain a face of respectability, while pounding down my inner prejudice and ignoring my favourite ego-defence mechanisms. (It’s ok, I can kick the door later).

That leads on to the whole issue of personal image. The major anxieties about horror stories of politicians pilloried by the hostile press and public embarrassment or the small and simple anxieties about what if my suit is unbuttoned during a speech and everyone laughs, not hearing my words. How should I dress? I cannot afford an image consultant perhaps. Does my hair look nice? Are my teeth shiny enough? Does my behind look good in this? These small concerns add to my anxiety and challenge my cool calm, professional exterior. Should I roll my sleeves up and drink a beer? Should I relax or be standing stiff-upper-lipped and stern? Should I bring a dog or hold a child? It is all about image these days. What should I tweet or type on Facebook? What picture might someone take and doctor then publish for the unsympathetic world to tear apart? Can I win friends and influence people? Will anyone put my poster in their window? Will they identify my sex, sexuality, gender, disability or ethnicity? Am I the ‘right’ category, will they still listen? Even if I believe in something else, how do I say the right thing? Should I say it, or should I retain the courage of my convictions and say what I really think? Which will win me the vote? [Inner scream!] How can I be me!? Needless to say I decided not to become a politician after all that, although I do acknowledge a secret desire to enjoy the power the role might give me, with snazzy coffee meetings at the Houses of Parliament and a genuine feeling of self-importance as I wear the costume of the role.

Thank goodness it is Mental Health Awareness Week! I have a reason to seek support, and this brings me to the next thing. Why do I only seek support now? What can I do to cope?

This applies to all of us working in an arena where we encounter people and/or take on huge workloads. We need to know both when we are stressed and what to do about it. Do we make a regular check on our own minds and ask ourselves, “Do I need a break?”

So, if you are reading this, I urge you to have a think about your day and your work pattern; if you take breaks or if you take time to look after your mind. We all seem to acknowledge that physical exercise is “good for us”, but how many of us apply the same thinking to out mental wellbeing?

Maintaining mental fitness is a daily thing. Practising mindfulness, for example or a relaxation technique, on a regular basis (daily is good according to research by Snippe et al, 2015) can make a huge difference to our overall mental resilience. Regular breaks increase our productivity (Ariga and Lleras, 2011) and a four day week is much better that five or more (Drexler, 2013). Exercise is great (Dishman & Sothman, 2017), so take a break and go for a walk between work. Seek help when needed, either via university support systems, such as the wellbeing team or via the chaplaincy; or via your own GP or personal networks.

The essence of the advice is that each of us needs to develop our own series of positive coping strategies that we actively engage with and repeat on a regular basis. This appears to have the effect of almost inoculating us against overwhelming stress.

I wonder if politicians, post-graduate students and lecturers will adhere to these guidelines.


More info is available at:

Canterbury Christ Church University Student Support Page

Easy Mental Fitness



Ariga, A & Lleras, A (2011) Brief and rare mental ‘‘breaks’’ keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition 2011: 1-5.

Dishman, RK & Sothmann, M (2017) Exercise fuels the brain’s stress buffers. American Psychological Association. Accessed online at

Drexler, P (2013) Why four-day workweeks are best. Accessed online at

Snippe, Evelien; Nyklíček, Ivan; Schroevers, Maya J.; Bos, Elisabeth H. (2015) The temporal order of change in daily mindfulness and affect during mindfulness-based stress reduction. Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol 62(2): 106-114.

Making the Invisible Visible: The Challenges of Mental Health in University Life

John Chacksfield FRSA, MSc, DipCOT, PGCE

The last 12 months at Canterbury Christ Church University saw a significant awakening to inner values and oft-hidden issues. Not only were Black History Month and LGTB History month promoted extensively and successfully, but the often-avoided, frequently stigmatised issue of mental health was raised. Mental health awareness at the university seems to be at an all-time high. This seems to be the result of the establishment of two things:

  1. A new student society at the student union called “Student Minds”, which is a campaigning society based on a national template and supported by the national Student Minds organisation.
  2. Local initiatives such as World Mental Health Day, a new radio show on the subject, on CSRfm 97.4, the student and community radio station, and the exciting University Mental Health Day in March.

University is a stressful time for undergraduates, who are often experiencing the reality of living away from home for the first time and dealing with many ‘real-life-stresses’ that they may have been shielded from before. According to Student Minds, the average incidence in mental health issues in university is probably one third; higher than the general population incidence of one in four. In 2011 the Royal College of Psychiatrists estimated that for students the incidence is 29% and approximately 4% of students see counsellors for a variety of mental health issues. Student Minds suggest the actual figures may be higher. They identified ten challenges for student mental health and found the top priorities for both students and staff were:

  1. Fear of being judged
  2. Stress
  3. Finding the confidence to tell people you have a mental health problem or are struggling

Other problems included loneliness and other difficulties with disclosing mental health problems. The RCP study found that debt and financial problems were significant factors in increased stress among students.

In a radio discussion with Christchurch Student Minds president, Matthew Axbey, he mentioned that often the first ports of call for a student who is suffering will be their friend or their tutors, however lecturers and other staff are poorly equipped to manage mental health issues among their students. Matthew feels all staff should be trained in immediate help strategies for the student under their care. They are the staff that students often know best and trust.

Axbey is taking action to address this. He has already convinced the Student Union to elect a mental health officer on their board and he is in the process of setting up a Nightline telephone support service. This will be run by trained student volunteers for the benefit of students. Christchurch Student Minds, under his leadership, has established University Mental Health Day for the first time at Christchurch University.

The author of this article runs a radio show on CSRfm, the local student and community radio station for the Canterbury area. His show, Mindscape, focuses on the many and various aspects of the mind, but also focuses on raising awareness about mental health. He often features interviews and discussions with guests on the subject of mental health and stigma. You can listen to Mindscape every Thursday evening from 6-7pm locally on 97.4fm or online via the radio station’s website at The show was set up so that talking about the mind and mental health is a “normal” part of discussion. Mental health has often been stigmatised as weakness or something to be feared, and probably because we are unable to see it. At least with a physical disability, there is something to see and which instantly gives a reason for certain types of behaviour.

For post graduate students the issues are similar but the stage of life may present different challenges. Often these students are older and may have families to manage as well as their studies, they are often required to lecture as well as study and many work part-time to maintain income. The intensity of higher level degrees can be more than undergraduate studies and there is often greater emphasis on independent study. American studies have found high levels of mental health problems among graduate students (Breines, 2015). The top three issues in Breines’ article were:

  1. Uncertain career prospects
  2. Isolation
  3. Financial difficulties

Other issues included chronic failure of studies and poor work-life balance.

So what are the solutions?

It appears that many of the suggestions forwarded by authors of articles and experts are about opening up discussion and ensuring mental health and stress are topics that are seen as part of conversations that lead to both awareness and solutions. Open discussion in meetings, training of senior academic staff, lecturers and tutors is a large part of this. Awareness of the Health and Safety Executive’s regulations and standards around stress in the workplace will also go a long way to help create positive change. General transparency about issues, such as mental health crises at universities are opportunities for discussion and awareness-raising. Clear promotion of support opportunities and solutions is very useful, particularly if combined with active outreach towards students who are at risk.

It seems that many universities are starting to be more open about the hidden issues of stress and mental ill health in academic life. Canterbury Christ Church University is making considerable strides towards this, however there is always more that can be done.






About the author:

John Chacksfield is currently a full-time PhD student within the Health & Wellbeing Faculty. Before this he was a mental health occupational therapist and manager for several years. Contact him via

Promoting Mental Health Awareness


As further research is conducted, mental health concerns continue to rise globally. Whilst recent Change for Life campaigns and the 2012 London Olympics have worked towards positively promoting physical exercise (within the UK) in order to counteract the on-set of unhealthy lifestyles, recent studies have shown how physical exercise can also benefit sufferers on cognitive conditions. This is something which CCCU have raised awareness of on Mental Health Awareness Day 2017, through promoting physical stimulus. However, the landscape of mental health awareness is confounded with rising health disparities linked with socio-economic concerns like poverty and social deprivation(s). This is further reflected in where an individual is placed on health and inequality spectrum, reminiscent of some living longer than others; notably males have historically been recognised as being disconnected from acknowledging cognitive conditions. Furthermore, mental health is still not an openly discussed concern, particularly within the LGBTIQ+ community.

Around the world, resources available to support people who are experiencing either acute or chronic mental health difficulties appear limited, this lack of resources is particularly apparent in developing countries. It is more prevalent in those who have constant or prolonged exposure to severely stressful events or traumas, dangerous living conditions, exploitation, and poor general health all contribute to greater vulnerability. The lack of access to affordable treatment makes the duration of the conditions more severe and debilitating, leading to a vicious circle of poverty and mental health conditions that is rarely broken (WHO, 2001). More needs to be done to tackle the issue of mental health.

This article has been authored in order to illustrate that those who feel isolated by their mental health concerns are not alone! One in Four people suffer from poor mental health at some point in their life time (WHO, 2001). It can affect anyone at any point in life so it is important to be aware of the services that are available to you.

CCCU offer services which can help to counteract mental health concerns, available to students, staff and alumni – Click Here


Author Bio

Nicole Holt, MSc. Is a PhD student at CCCU researching the effect of an individual’s spirituality on their health and wellbeing and is also a researcher with INCISE.

Alex Pettit is a mental health nursing student at CCCU, having previously graduated from a Criminology BSc honours degree, also at CCCU.

INCISE and the Agent Provocateur

For a critical social justice perspective on the resent Milo Yiannopoulos controversy see Professor B Scherer`s latest post on the CCCU Blog found here:

Pro Bee is the director of INCISE, the Intersectional Centre for Inclusion and Social Justice (INCISE) is an academic Research Centre within the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Canterbury Christ Church University.

To find out more about INCISE visit: and, follow @INCISEcccu on Twitter and Facebook:

Global Goals and Basic Education in Developing Countries: The Unceasing Debate about Impact

Roger Abogzuah Ayinselya

Education has been considered as an important vessel to people’s development. Arguably, through education individuals are provided with the skills and knowledge for understanding their society and unearthing their potentials for personal and national development. Burtch (2006) describes education as a major force in economic, intellectual and social empowerment.

Realising this important role that education plays in the lives of individuals and national as well as international development, the first world conference on ‘Education For All’ (EFA) was launched in Thailand in 1990. The aim was to ensure that all countries achieved universal primary/basic education for all children by the year 2000 (WCEFA, 1990). By this, countries were to ensure that all children, irrespective of their geographic location, family background and gender had access to basic education. The Framework for Action specified targets and strategies for all countries to achieve this aim. Many countries were strongly committed to these goals as seen in their national educational policies. Ten years after the launch of the EFA agenda, however, it was established that remarkable progress had been accomplished in terms of access but quality as measured through various indicators such as pupils’ ability to read, write, do numeracy and spell left much to be desired in many developing countries. There were also reports of high dropout rates among pupils as a result of system inefficiency (Dambe’le’ and Oviawe, 2007).

Following the inability of many countries to make sufficient progress in the EFA agenda, the United Nations (UN) ratified Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on primary/basic education in 2000 reaffirmed the need for universal basic education by 2015.  A Document Review Report (2003) stressed the core priorities of basic education as means for poverty eradication and overcoming social inequality. Prioritising universal basic education continued to be the main agenda for the international community. A decade of the launch of the MDGs, reports emerged that efforts to achieve access for all children, particularly in many developing countries, have tended to adversely affect quality standards (Barrett, 2011; Kruijer, 2010). This was because of the increased enrolment of pupils did not correspond with increase in teachers and other teaching and learning resources thereby putting pressure on existing resources (Kruijer, 2010). In Malawi, for instance, the ratio of pupils to classroom increased to 119:1, the ratio of pupils to teachers also increased to 62:1 and the ratio of pupils to text books increased to 24:1 (USAID, 2007). The situation in Ghana was not dissimilar. The increase in enrolment resulted in overcrowded classroom and increased teacher workloads (Akyeampong, 2011). Increased enrolments without corresponding increase in resources has implications for children’s learning experiences. A number of reports reveal that in many developing countries most children complete basic education with little or no basic skills in writing, reading and doing numeracy expected of them at that level. For instance, according to the 11th Global Monitoring Report, only one-third of children in South and West Asia and two-fifths in Sub-Saharan Africa achieved basic competence in reading at grade 4 (UNESCO, 2013/14). A national education assessment on basic education in Ghana indicated that less than 25% of children in Ghana acquired the proficiency level for primary six English and only 10% achieved proficiency in primary six mathematics (Wereko and Dordunoo, 2010). This trend is worrying not only because these children are ill-equipped with the basic knowledge to make the transition to the next levels in education but may also lack the skills to function well in their daily lives.

What does this mean for global agendas then? Well! My reflection on this issue, is more questions rather than answers. I wonder, could it be that universalising ‘access to basic education’ is a misplaced priority? Or could it be the issue of ‘one shoe does not fit all’? Or could it be both? Targeting universal basic education is good. However, the fact remains that the priorities, values and educational needs of individual countries vary. Therefore, to generalise ideas to solve global problems by the international community as if one shoe fits all seeks, not only, to ‘reinforce the new imperialism but also further limit the capacity of developing countries to determine their own educational agendas’ (Tikly 2004: 190). As argued already, individual countries have their priorities.  It is imperative to allow countries to set targets in their own educational policies that will conform to their resource capacity and national development needs and interests. It is also important to recognise that for education to prove more useful, it often needs to be more sensitive to the local and cultural realities of each country (Crossley et al., 2005). The agenda for implementation of the current United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the education goal, appears to acknowledge this concern. In its draft outcome document for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda, the UN General Assembly declared that the SDGs are to be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the rights of individual countries, by taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. By this, national governments are now bound to embark upon a comprehensive program of implementation, developing a national strategy, agreeing upon a national monitoring framework and a process for annual reporting (SDSN, 2015; 15). Civil servants, local governments and other stakeholders are all expected to play a pivotal role in planning and implementing the SDGs. This acknowledgement looks promising, yet it is early days to make any comprehensive critique of the impact this may have, not only on access to basic education but also on the quality of education that children receive in developing countries.


I will keep my fingers crossed!



Barrett, M., A.  (2011) A Millennium Learning Goal for education post‐2015: a question of outcomes or processes. Comparative Education, 47(1), pp. 119-133.

Burtch, B. (2006) Education law and social justice. In Oduaran, A. and Bhola, H.S. (Eds) Widening Access to Education as Social Justice Netherland: Springer, pp. 83 – 94.

Crossley, M., Herriot, A., Wando, J., Mwirotsi, M., Holmes, K. and Juma, M. (2005) Research and Evaluation for Educational Development: Learning from the PRISM Experience in Kenya. Oxford: Symposium Books.

Dambele, M. and Oviawe, J. (2007) Introduction: Quality Education in Africa-International commitments, Local Challenges and Responses. International Review of Education, 53, pp. 473-483.

Document Review (2003) The Local Solution to Global Challenges: Toward Effective Partnership in Basic Education, Canada, Opmeer, Netherland Foreign Affairs. Available at:

Kruijer, H. (2010) Learning How to Teach: the upgrading of unqualified primary teachers in sub-Saharan Africa. Paris: Education International.

Sustainable Development Solution Network(SDSN) (2015) Getting Started with the Sustainable Development Goals: A Guide for Stakeholders. Available at:

Tikly, L. (2004) Education and the new imperialism. Comparative Education, 40(2), pp. 173–98.

UNESCO (2013/14) Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all. Education for All: Global Monitoring Report. Paris: UNESCO

USAID (2007) ‘School Fees and Education for All: Is Abolition the Answer?’ A Working Paper for EQUIP2

Wereko, T.B. and Dordunno, C. (2010) Effective Delivery of Public Services: Focus on Education. A review by AfriMAP and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. Johannesburg: Open Society Initiative for West Africa

World Conference on Education for All (WCEFA) (1990) Meeting Basic Learning Needs, Jomtien, Thailand. Available at:



About the Author

Roger Abogzuah Ayinselya has a first degree in Psychology from the University of Cape Coast, Ghana (2011). He also has a master’s degree in Educational Leadership, Policy and Development from the University of Bristol, UK (2014). Roger is currently a PhD student in the Faculty of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University. His research interest is in the area of basic education, teacher identity, professional development and education.